This is the fourth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IV: The Complete Poems in English by John Milton
Samson, the Old Testament character of prodigious strength, is an odd sort of hero. Like a Hebrew Hercules, he performed tremendous feats, but the moral of his story not altogether simple. Samson was quick to anger, cruel to animals, indiscriminate in his violence, and, worst of all, he drank nothing but water.
Samson was a Nazirite, which means that he was consecrated to God and made specific vows: In the first place, Nazirites vow to drink no wine. The second vow is to leave one’s hair uncut. And finally, Nazirites vow to avoid ritual uncleanliness by coming in contact with the dead, including funerals.
How did Samson fare in attempting to keep his vows? As to the injunction against drinking wine, he appears to have followed through. Maimonides taught that alcohol is not forbidden for Nazirites, so long as it is not derived from grapes. But Samson’s version of this vow seems to be one of total abstention. Most English translations seem to follow The King James Version, stating that Samson was to “drink no wine nor strong drink.” Some more modern translations say that he was to avoid “wine or any other alcoholic drink.” The Contemporary English Version specifically includes beer. In the words of Milton, Samson’s “drink was only from the liquid brook.”
As for cutting his hair, Samson famously kept this vow until he was deceived by a prostitute called Delilah. She, then, cut his hair in his sleep, rendering him powerless. Having followed through on this part of the Nazirite vow was the source of his strength, and without his hair he was as weak as any other mortal.
And as for avoiding corpses, I am inclined to think that he did a terrible job. The Bible does not tell us about him attending funerals or strolling through cemeteries, but he killed a bunch of guys. And it seems to me that when he beat a thousand men to death with the jawbone of an ass, he got in plenty of corpse touching. I have heard it argued that at the time that he touched the Philistines, they were not yet dead, and that they only became dead after he touched them. This argument elevates form over substance. And, at any rate, that doesn’t account for the time that he killed thirty innocent men and stripped the clothing from their bodies to give to the people who figured out his stupid riddle. Stripping the clothes from dead men is most certainly NOT in keeping with the Nazirite’s vows.
If the goal of life is righteousness, then I think that the Nazirite vows may actually be a stumbling block. There is no doubt that the discipline and dedication required to follow though with the vows can be a valuable tool for contemplation and self-improvement. But if one simply follows through with the strictest literal interpretation of the vows, he risks achieving ritual purity without achieving righteousness. That is, the Nazirite vows are not the end. Samson followed the vows, but did that justify tying foxes together by their tails and lighting them on fire? Did leaving his hair uncut make it ok for him to frequent brothels? Is it ok to murder thirty men over a riddle, so long as he can do so and not break his vows? (And, again, I think it is important to emphasize that the men who were killed were not the ones who tricked his wife into giving up the solution to the riddle. They were presumably unaware of Samson’s reason for murdering them.)
And the fact that Samson lost his strength when his hair was cut seems to further this form over substance problem. Samson did not break his vow. His hair was cut while he was asleep. And yet, Samson lost his power and his favor from God because of what somebody else did. The power, it seems, was not even in the obedient dedication to God, but in the show of dedication – the hair itself. Without his long hair, nobody can tell that he is a Nazirite just by looking at him; he loses his strength, not because he broke his vow, but because he looks like he broke his vow. The appearance of righteousness is more important for Samson than inward righteousness.
In short, wouldn’t it be better to drink wine, sport a buzz-cut, attend funerals, and not be a violent psychopath?
Beer of the week: Bourbon County Brand Barleywine (2017) – This is an uncommonly strong beer to go with a reading about an uncommonly strong man. Every year, Goose Island releases it’s limited edition Bourbon County Brand line of beers. These special brews are aged in used bourbon barrels. The 2017 Barleywine is an excellent beverage. It is 14% alcohol, and it shows. But it is so smooth that the alcohol is warm but not harsh. The aroma has notes of vanilla. In the flavor there is a hint of pepper (from the bourbon barrel, perhaps.) Dark cherry is a stand-out in a very rich flavor profile. What a treat!
Reading of the week: Samson Agonistes by John Milton – Milton’s version of Samson attributes his downfall to a lack of wisdom, and a weakness for women: “what is strength without a double share of wisdom?” In this section of the tragic poem, Samson is talking with his father Manoa about the proper course of action now that he is imprisoned and blind. Certain of Manoa’s exhortations are reminiscent of Crito’s appeal to Socrates: “Repent the sin, but if the punishment Thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids.”
Question for the week: Ultimately, I think that my reading of the story of Samson is not the intended reading. Samson is meant to be a hero, not a cautionary tale about elevating religious form over virtuous substance. How can his story be read more charitably?
According to legend, the Chinese sage Liu Ling was at all times followed by a servant carrying a wine bottle and a shovel. The purpose of the wine is obvious; Liu Ling liked to drink. The shovel’s purpose was somewhat darker. Liu Ling thought of the whole world as his home. “The sun and moon [were] the windows of his house; the cardinal points [were] the boundaries of his domain.” Because he felt equally at home wherever he ranged, he had no sentimental desire for his mortal remains to be laid to rest in any particular place; no “bury me on the old farmstead” for him. More important than his detachment from any specific place, it seems that Lui Ling had no particular sentimental attachment to his own body. Consequently, he did not care where it was buried. And so Lui Ling’s servant carried a shovel, ready to inter his master’s corpse wherever he should happen to drop dead.
Many centuries later, Lui Ling’s thoughts on mortality (and on alcohol consumption) inspired Jack London. In his autobiographical novel John Barleycorn, London reminisces about “Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.” In particular, London seems to agree with Lui Ling’s statement “that to a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river.”
But why the do affairs of the world appear as duckweed? When alcohol reduces the drunken man’s problems to mere trivialities, is it because the alcohol blinds him to the true extent of his troubles? Or does it make him neglectful of things that actually matter? It seems more probable that the drunk man is actually seeing more clearly than before. The alcohol helps him to understand the transience and insignificance of human concerns, a realization that is perhaps difficult for a sober mind to bear. Like Liu Ling himself, the drunken man sees the whole world as his home and all eternity as but an instant.
Beer of the week: Pearl River Beer – This Chinese brew pours clear and golden with little carbonation. The aroma is mostly of grass and rice. The flavor is rather plain with some lingering sweetness. It isn’t a particularly bad beer, especially considering its nation of origin. On the other hand, if it has to travel halfway around the world, it had better be pretty good.
Reading of the week: The Genius of Wine by Liu Ling – The translator tells us that the “old gentleman” of this story is Liu Ling himself. This very short passage gives a couple hints of Liu Ling’s philosophy, and relates how he withstood the intervention of “two respectable philanthropists” who tried to get him to quit drinking by berating and lecturing him.
Question for the week: Why are so many people so adamant about what should become of their mortal remains?
“Champagne’s funny stuff,” according to Jimmy Stewart’s character in The Philadelphia Story. “I’m used to whiskey. Whiskey is a slap on the back, and champagne’s heavy mist before my eyes.”
Different alcoholic drinks have different effects on people. Some of those effects are apparently personal rather than universal. I have a friend who stopped drinking moonshine because it produced in her a very melancholy drunk. I have another friend who has sworn off tequila because it made him “rambunctious.” Although wild or irresponsible behavior while drunk on tequila is a common trope, there are others in whom tequila produces much more mellow effects.
Some people are made warm and affectionate by red wine. This is something of a double-edged sword. Warmth and affection can both be good things, but wine can only produce these up to a point before they become grotesque. According to Thomas De Quincy in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, “wine unsettles and clouds the judgement, and gives a preternatural brightness and a vivid exaltation to the contempts and the admirations, the loves and the hatreds of the drinker… In the sudden development of kind-heartedness which accompanies inebriation there is always more or less of a maudlin character, which exposes it to the contempt of the bystander. Men shake hands, swear eternal friendship, and shed tears, no mortal knows why; and the sensual creature is clearly uppermost.”
But that is only true after a point. De Quincy admits that he always found “that half-a-dozen glasses of wine advantageously affected the faculties—brightened and intensified the consciousness, and gave to the mind a feeling of being ponderibus librata suis,” (balanced under its own weight.) De Quincy’s “sensual creature” only took over after he started in on the second bottle. Before then, the rational man seems to have been the main benefactor of the booze.
De Quincy also relates that “the pleasure given by wine is always mounting and tending to a crisis, after which it declines.” I think that beer also has this mounting tendency, but because of how filling it is and because of its relatively low alcohol content, drunkenness from beer develops more slowly than from wine or liquor. And with an especially strong beer, one often drinks so slowly that the added time makes up for the added alcohol.
Beer of the week: Delirium Tremens – De Quincy had to deal with opium withdraw, but this Belgian blonde ale is named after the effects of alcohol withdraw. It is very pale in color, with a fluffy head that fades fairly quickly. The beer smells sweet, fruity, and yeasty. The carbonation tickles the tongue as the rich flavor really fills the mouth. The aftertaste lingers for quite a while leaving the hints of spice and alcohol behind. Overall, the flavors and alcohol (8.5%) are very strong. I could definitely see some people being overwhelmed by this ale, though I find it delightful.
Reading for the week: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincy – This excerpt compares the effects of alcohol and opium. De Quincy was criticized very strongly for making opium use sound too appealing. He describes getting high and going to the opera. He paints a picture of himself in a mountain cottage, surrounded by five-thousand books drinking tea (and opium.) I understand the critics; De Quincy makes opium sound pretty awesome. (Until the part about the terrifying hallucinations and nightmares.)
Question for the week: Is there any sort of alcohol that you abstain from because of its particular effects?
Happy Friday the 13th! Today I will focus on one of the spookiest, creepiest poets of all time: Charles Baudelaire. His poems are dark as Guinness stout and chilling as… a simile about cold beers.
When I first read the works of Charles Baudelaire, I was none too impressed. Had he been an American teen in the early years of this millennium, Baudelaire would have been a goth kid with whiny LiveJournal. Everything is corpses and skulls with that guy. “Nobody likes me,” his poems lament, “but that is because my soul is a that of a beautiful poet and everybody else is a dick.” (By the way, I am only half making this stuff up. His poem The Albatross compares the poet to a majestic bird that is mocked when it condescends to land among normal men.)
But Baudelaire was more than just a whinging kid with macabre tastes. Perhaps his greatest contribution to literature was his translation of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. (Which sheds some additional light on his morbid sensibilities.) It seems that Poe was more or less forgotten in the United States in the generation after his death. Luckily, Baudelaire translated Poe into French and popularized his works. The so-called Decadent Movement spread across Europe, to England, and across the Atlantic, and it brought Poe back into vogue with it.
Of course, Baudelaire’s own work is not without value. I particularly like his poem Get Drunk. The ceaseless crushing gears of time are unbearable unless one gets drunk. “Get drunk! Stay Drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, on whatever you want.” Find something that intoxicates you, something that alters your perception of time. And if you should wake up with a hang-over on the steps of a palace or in the grass of a ditch, ask the world what time it is. And the answer will be: time to get drunk!
Beer of the week: 5 Vulture Oaxacan-Style Dark Ale – Find a photo of Baudelaire and tell me that he doesn’t look like a cartoon vulture. Which, given his dark style, seems totally appropriate. 5 Vulture Ale is brewed by 5 Rabbit Cervecería, a Latin American inspired brewery near Chicago. This dark ale is brewed with ancho chili peppers. The color is dark amber and the head is tan. The aroma is distinctive and sweet. The taste has hints of dark chocolate and a subtle fruit presence that I can’t quite pin down. The ancho chilies used in the brewing give a pleasant tingle at the end, though I’d actually prefer a bit more spice. It also feels thinner than one would expect from such a dark, flavorful beer. It is so different that I really don’t know what to think about it.
Reading of the week: Get Drunk by Charles Baudelaire – The first version of this poem that I read was an English translation that included the word “beer”. When I checked the French, I was disappointed (though not surprised) to find that the word used was “vin”. Beer would have been better, but wine will do.
Question of the week: I am sure that I understand being drunk on wine. I think that I understand being drunk on poetry. But I can’t quite get my head around being drunk on virtue. What can that mean?